Speech by SPS Sun Xueling at the Committee of Supply Debate 2019: Supporting the Vulnerable
Mar 7, 2019
Supporting the Vulnerable
Mr Chairman, I would like to begin by thanking all Members who have spoken in support of the vulnerable, the less advantaged, and the lower-income. They are our fellow citizens, and Singapore is a shared home where we all belong.
Section 1: Encouraging and supporting rental households towards homeownership
Several Members have asked how we can better help tenants to have homes of their own.
I would first like to share that the number of public rental households who moved into homeownership flats has increased steadily. The number almost doubled over the past five years, from about 700 in 2014 to about 1,300 last year.
We are committed to helping more tenants move into homeownership.
Members have asked whether we are reviewing Fresh Start. I am pleased to announce some enhancements.
First, we will raise the age limit on the youngest child for Fresh Start applicants, from 16 to 18 years old. This will allow more families to benefit from the scheme. The new age limit will also apply for other schemes for parents with dependent children, namely the Parenthood Priority Scheme, and ASSIST, the Assistance Scheme for Second-Timers who are divorced or widowed parents.
Second, we will intensify support for Fresh Start families through a new Fresh Start Support Programme. We have found through our experience that closer and more regular contact with families allows for early intervention to address any issue that may emerge. The Support Programme will also take a holistic approach to strengthen them in various areas, such as financial management, family functioning and overall stability. The Support Programme will be overseen by MSF, and they will appoint a service provider with social work expertise, and this will commence later this year.
Third, there are also families who applied for Fresh Start but who did not meet some of the criteria. If they are serious about Fresh Start and have good potential to meet the criteria fully, they can get special consideration to join. Once they join, they may book a BTO 2-room Flexi flat within 1 year – like other Fresh Start families. They will also get more intensive support under the Support Programme, focusing on the criteria that they did not meet. They will need to meet all the criteria by 1 year before their key collection. We estimate that this will benefit about 80 families over 3 years.
We look forward to partnering our tenants closely towards homeownership. Chairman Sir, may I show some visuals? This is Mdm Narziah, and her mother. They have lived in a rental flat since 2006, with Mdm Narziah’s daughter who is not pictured here. HDB met Mdm Narziah last year to share about Fresh Start, and she decided to apply. She welcomed the assistance under the scheme, and was appreciative that HDB officers met her in person to ask about her homeownership aspirations, and guided her through each step of buying a flat. She is now looking forward to her new flat in Tampines. Mdm Narziah is not alone in her homeownership aspirations, and we want to help more families like hers.
In my earlier speech a few days ago, I shared that HDB will introduce a dedicated team to provide personalised guidance for families towards homeownership. The Home ownership Support Team will reach out to tenants who are more able to consider homeownership, for instance those who possess a stable income and family stability. Tenants who need advice on homeownership can also approach the team for help.
Ms Cheryl Chan and Mr Seah Kian Peng asked how we ensure that rents do not discourage tenants from working towards higher incomes and homeownership. Our public rental rates are structured progressively, to keep the subsidy allocation fair. Nonetheless, to mitigate cliff effects, HDB waives the rent increase for up to two terms when tenants first cross the $800 income threshold, if their income remains less than $1,500. In the last 3 years, about 5,200 households have benefitted from this waiver.
HDB also reduces the rent for households on a case-by-case basis if they cannot afford it.
I would also like to emphasise that HDB does not ask tenants to leave solely because their income has increased past the ceiling of $1,500. Instead, HDB will work with them on their homeownership options once they are ready.
To further encourage these households, we will not increase the rent for those who have made the downpayment for a new flat. They will continue to pay the rent they were charged at the time when they made the downpayment. This will take effect for tenancies which commence from 1 Jun 2019. We hope this will put households in good stead for their next milestone as homeowners.
Mr Lim Biow Chuan suggested allowing tenants to buy over their rental flats. We currently have no such plans, as there are many measures to help tenants buy a new flat from HDB. This also maintains our rental flat supply for others who have no other housing options.
Section 2: Upgrading of Older Rental Blocks
Mr Lim also suggested improving the living environment in older rental blocks. HDB has consistently upgraded rental flats just as they do for sold flats. But we want to do more, especially for older rental blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s. As the Member highlighted, some blocks have long corridors with rental units on both sides. As a result, the natural ventilation and light is more limited than those of newer designs.
To address this, HDB will undertake works to create more openings along the corridors, by removing some flats on each floor of such blocks. This will provide a permanent improvement for the residents in terms of the airflow and brightness of the block.
HDB has piloted this and the feedback from residents has been positive. Chairman Sir, may I show some visuals. This shows a typical corridor of a block with units on both sides. And this is a corridor at Blk 217 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1, where HDB piloted the upgrading works. The works made a marked difference to the inside of each block – more common space, more sunlight, more ventilation. I have visited the older blocks and an improved block myself, and I think Members will agree with me that our proposed works will be a marked improvement. We will extend these works to more rental blocks, and we will provide more details in due course.
As some tenants may need to move for the improvement works, HDB will help them to move within the same or nearby blocks. HDB will work closely with local organisations and the relevant agencies to ensure a smooth transition.
Chairman Sir, in Mandarin please.
Section 3: Support for vulnerable families with changing family circumstances
Mr Louis Ng and Er Dr Lee Bee Wah asked whether we can better support divorcees in their housing transition, especially those with children. Mr Ng also asked whether we can help young single unwed parents to rent a flat from HDB more expeditiously.
Last year, we lifted the time bar on divorcees to facilitate their housing transition after divorce. However, some still face difficulties due to acrimony between both parties. Some cannot take action on their matrimonial flat because their ex-spouses are uncooperative and do not adhere to the Court Order. Parties whose ex-spouses are uncooperative may seek legal help to resolve the issue, for example by applying to the relevant Court to vary the Court Order to empower the Registrar to sign on behalf of the uncooperative party.
There are also those awaiting their Final Judgement of divorce. They may be worried about their next housing arrangement, and hoping to apply for a flat earlier. This is understandable. HDB will now allow divorcing parties to apply for a new flat from HDB if they have an Interim Judgement and have settled the ancillary matters on their matrimonial property, and the custody, care and control of their children. This means they no longer have to wait until the Final Judgement in order to apply for a flat. They will just need to obtain the Final Judgement before collecting their keys, and ensure they are still eligible for the flat that they booked. We hope this will give divorcing parties some peace of mind as they go through an emotionally difficult period.
A final group, as Mr Ng mentioned, are those with shared care and control of their children, who require agreement from their ex-spouse to buy a subsidised flat with their children listed. In such cases, both parents have a shared and equal right to list their children in their flat. That is why we start by encouraging parents to agree on the listings in the best interests of their children. But we understand that there may be difficulties sometimes. So if there are indeed difficulties, HDB will look at the case more closely, and will be prepared to exercise flexibility to help protect the interests of the children.
For single unwed parents in need of housing, I assure Mr Ng that no applicant will be turned away at HDB’s counters. HDB will first seek to understand their circumstances to see how best to help them, because their needs differ, and often the input of social workers is also required. We want to provide help, and will do our best to accommodate their requests for housing, be it to purchase a flat or to rent one.
These are just some examples of how HDB does consider individual circumstances which our housing policies may not cater to fully. This includes households above the public rental income ceiling, which Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap spoke about. In the last 3 years, 590 households were helped with public rental despite exceeding the income ceiling. HDB considers each application holistically. The income ceiling, while relevant, is not the only factor considered.
Section 4: Enhancing animal welfare and management
Let me now speak about our work on animal welfare and management.
Mr Louis Ng asked how AVA addresses cat abandonment. AVA takes animal abandonment very seriously, and will investigate all related feedback. To establish the owner of an abandoned pet, AVA gathers evidence by walking the ground, interviewing witnesses, and reviewing CCTV footage. Persons convicted of pet abandonment can be fined up to $10,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 12 months for a first-time offence.
Nonetheless, we recognise the importance of strengthening upstream controls to deter pet abandonment. The Cat Welfare Society currently manages Project Love Cats, a pilot community-owned responsible cat ownership programme in Chong Pang, with the support of Government agencies. Under this pilot, CWS has been working with the community on microchipping pet cats to strengthen owner accountability. We can consider further expansion when the Chong Pang pilot meets these outcomes, and when there is strong community support in other parts of Singapore. In addition, the AVA intends to undertake a holistic review of the regulatory approach for pet issues, including how to promote responsible pet ownership and deter abandonment.
Mr Ng also asked for an update on the Trap-Neuter-Release-Manage programme, or TNRM. Developed in consultation with animal welfare groups (AWGs) and veterinarians, TNRM is a humane way to sustainably manage the stray dog population nationwide. TNRM is being implemented in phases. Since its launch in November 2018, AVA and participating AWGs have been managing the operations at various sites across Singapore. Participating AWGs have been able to tap on SPCA’s sterilisation clinic since February. In the coming months, AVA and SPCA will also set up a central pool of professional trappers to support the programme. AVA has concurrently been engaging stakeholders such as the Town Councils, People’s Association, and grassroots organisations to raise awareness of TNRM and to address any concerns that may arise. Public feedback has generally been positive.
AVA will continue to ensure that animal and wildlife management strategies are grounded in science, and balance the needs and interests of various stakeholders. This will be further strengthened with the upcoming reorganisation of AVA’s functions from 1 April 2019, as AVA’s veterinary science capabilities will be combined with NParks’ expertise in ecology and conservation.